Orla MacIntosh-Graham says the huge crowds venerating the relics of St Bernadette in the UK show the deep power of devotion is nothing to be sniffed at.
Soon it will be time to welcome the Relic Tour of St Bernadette to Carfin Grotto, their sole destination in Scotland. Westminster Diocese was first to host the relics on British soil in the Cathedral, some parishes and, most importantly for me, at St Mary’s University. As a theology student and wannabe Dominican sister, obviously this was exciting.
But more special than my own joy is the interest that this visit has brought towards the Catholic Faith. Relics are funny things to explain to others – bits of bone, hair, clothing. It isn’t all that appealing. But St Bernadette is.
Around 4,000 pilgrims were on campus throughout the day. There were Masses, Rosaries led by the Sisters of the Assumption, Benediction, Anointing of the Sick, Stations of the Cross, Sacrament of Reconciliation with local prison chaplains – it really was the ‘Day in Lourdes’ as our chaplain had hoped for.
Long queues filled the piazza all day to venerate the relics and get a seat at the fully booked Masses. Pilgrims venerating St Bernadette’s relics – which include rib fragments, kneecaps, and thigh muscle, housed in a decorated reliquary – had the opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence, too.
For me, the highlight of the day was seeing the university chapel filled with more than 350 children from local schools. What a wonderful memory of a once in a lifetime event for these young people.
With such joy and reverence, they sang every word of every hymn, bowed before the altar and knelt at the relics. And any suspicions I had that this was down purely to the warnings given by their teachers were shattered in an instant as I saw one little boy whose school had long ago left from Mass, run down the aisle, and drop to his knees to make the Sign of the Cross.
As he ran back out of the chapel, I asked him if he was okay. His reply was simple: “I said ‘Hi’ to Jesus at Mass but forgot to tell Bernadette my name”. Isn’t that great?
The start of a real devotion in the heart of an eight-year-old. I would say that there are two main reasons for the veneration of relics in the theological, religious sense: by granting healing and graces God shows Himself through the relics, and relics can help us connect closely to a saint and therefore bring the communion of saints into a more fathomable frame for us – hopefully inspiring holiness.
However, there is a far more human element to the benefit of St Bernadette’s visit and that is that people from all walks of life have the chance to come together in prayer in a truly spiritually enlivening experience.
Visiting the Grotto where Bernadette saw Our Lady while on pilgrimage at Lourdes offers a significant, spiritually enlarging opportunity to continue her trip and now we have that right here among the students!
Cardinal Vincent Nichols said that the visit ‘offers us a welcome opportunity to bear active witness to our Faith, joining with one another across our many communities to encounter God’s love and find spiritual, emotional, and psychological healing and renewal’.
He asked Catholics to take part in the tour and to continue that participation by considering pilgrimage to Lourdes itself in future.
At the final Mass of the day, Fr Toby Lees said in his homily that ‘St Bernadette is no longer bodily with us, and yet she is not lost to us, we are still in relation with her through prayer, and her earthly remains are not empty of meaning because her body was a vessel of holiness.’
Through- out the day I spoke to possibly hundreds of people who came to take part in the miniature Lourdes experience having been away from the Church for years, and many not even Catholic or Christian.
This is where it is important to recognise that having a physical reminder of saints is so important.
Mindful of the fact that many have been unable to travel internationally to Lourdes during the pandemic, the visit of St Bernadette’s relics is serving to remind UK Catholics of the importance of our pilgrimage in our lives: journeying for spiritual reasons to find truth, purpose and direction.
Orla Macintosh-Graham is a theology student from Roy Bridge studying at St Mary’s University London.